James Island is a large triangular sea island that is framed by Wappoo Creek and Charleston Harbor on the north, Morris Island and Folly Beach on the east, and the Stono River and Johns Island on the west.

The Civil War began on James Island on the morning of April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces at Fort Johnson fired on Union-occupied Fort Sumter. Both forts were located on the island's northern shore.

Most of the fighting in the Charleston area during the rest of the Civil War also occurred on James Island and Morris Island, as Union troops tried to invade Charleston from the south, from their base on Folly Beach. All of these efforts, including notable assaults on Fort Lamar and Battery Wagner, were defeated.

James Island remained predominantly rural until the 1960s. It has since become a residential suburb of Charleston, which has made several attempts to incorporate since 1993.

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